Recently named by Politico magazine as one of the top 50 “thinkers, doers and visionaries transforming American politics in 2016,” Alan Sears, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) president, CEO and general counsel, has long held a front-row seat for the legal and political changes affecting Christians in America. Decision asked Sears to share his view of the potential impact of the coming election.
More than anything, what’s at stake in the upcoming election is the composition of the United States Supreme Court for the next 20 years. It’s very likely that the next president will have the opportunity to name at least two Supreme Court justices. Whether or not those nominees are committed to honoring the words and principles of our Constitution as written and originally intended will set the course of much that happens in our nation in the years ahead. And much of what happens in the rest of the world, too.
Certainly, the president of the United States—through executive action and what Theodore Roosevelt called “the bully pulpit”—is uniquely positioned not only to press for his or her judicial nominees (throughout the federal courts), but also to set the nation’s legal and cultural agenda and set the tone for civil discourse in this country. At the moment, the nominees being chosen, the agenda being pressed and the tone being modeled are all deeply hostile to religious freedom. The results of the coming election could change all of that—or reinforce it throughout our political system and society.
Frankly, we’re at war. That’s blunt, but it’s true. Two worldviews are locked in mortal combat right now in our politics, our popular culture and our courts and legal system.
The first worldview says that free speech and freedom of religion are the basis for the founding of this nation—the fundamental inspiration of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. This side believes, with James Madison, that “conscience is the most sacred of all properties,” and that the first duty of every citizen and every public servant is to preserve and protect the freedoms that ensure our rights of conscience.
The other side contends that these freedoms are not essential, but negotiable—to be altered or diminished, depending on who is yielding power. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito alluded to this in his dissent in the recent high court decision to deny a hearing in the case of our ADF clients—the Stormans family of Olympia, Wash. (Stormans v. Wiesman). Alito said the court’s decision not to review a decision forcing these pro-life pharmacists to stock and dispense abortion-inducing drugs was an “ominous sign” for the future of religious freedom in America.
The future of religious freedom and free speech depends on the outcome of this great struggle, and the key thing to watch is how the courts rule on cases involving rights of conscience. Those rulings will certainly be shaped by who is elected this fall and by those they nominate to fill critical positions in the courts.
Those decisions will also be influenced by what’s happening in the media, at our universities and in popular culture. But while it’s true that the law follows culture, it’s also true that culture follows the law. In the end, what happens in the courts will have the most impact on where we’re going in the years ahead.
For years, we’ve seen abuses of religious liberty in Europe that many thought would never happen in the United States. But today, some things actually may be looking better in Europe than they are here. Our ADF International team is working extensively over there, and they have seen a number of significant victories at the European Court of Human Rights, defending the sanctity of life, freedom of speech and especially religious expression. Those victories may portend more protection for civil liberties in Europe, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Ironically, if that’s the case, it could ultimately bode well for America, too, since U.S. courts are increasingly taking their cue from European legal precedents, even over and above the rulings of U.S. courts.
But what can be done today to prevent a further degradation of freedom?
Voting, of course, is critically important—but only if we are alert and informed and we vote for candidates committed to the preservation of liberty and actively engaged in these ongoing legal, cultural and political battles.
We need leaders—not only elected officials at all levels, but pastors, ministry leaders, businessmen and women—who will speak boldly and thoughtfully in defense of our freedoms. And we need them to stand strong and unashamed alongside those who are standing in the dock, risking everything to defend our constitutionally protected rights.
What we really need today are Aarons and Hurs. During the battle with the Amalekites (Exodus 17), Moses, up on the mountain, raised his arms. As long as his arms were up, the Israelites kept winning. So when Moses’ arms grew heavy, Aaron and Hur held them up.
Many of our fellow Christians, fighting the good fight for religious freedom on the front lines of this culture war, are tired. They need their brothers and sisters to come alongside them, strengthening them and “holding up their arms” as the battles continue. We can offer support through faithful prayer, through words of encouragement, by telling their stories and defending their wisdom and courage before our families, friends and neighbors.
As I said, this is a war, not a battle or momentary conflict. We must encourage each other, teach our children, engage our leaders and flex our strength at the ballot box. The essential freedoms we have cherished so long are no longer a given for any of us. May God give us grace to stand and defend the incredible legacy of liberty He’s entrusted to our nation. ©2016 Alan Sears